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Russia ramps up toxic hate speech as it escalates its attack on Crimean Tatars

Halya Coynash
Detention of one of the elderly Crimean Tatars seeking to know where the FSB had taken Nariman Dzhelyal and four other men Photo Crimean Solidarity

Since the arrest in early September 2021 of Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader and journalist Nariman Dzhelyal, there has been a sharp escalation both in mass detentions, and in hate speech aimed at inciting enmity both towards the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people, and towards Crimean Tatars in general. It has been clear since 2016 that taking a strong civic stand, especially if you also report repression under Russian occupation, can get you arrested and sentenced to huge terms of imprisonment. Since early September, any Crimean Tatar, regardless of age or gender, can end up detained simply for standing on the street outside a political trial or for trying to greet those released from jail.

According to Iryna Sedova from the Crimean Human Rights Group, it is very obvious that Crimean Tatars are being targeted.  She notes that, if earlier human rights defenders considered most of the cases against Crimean Tatars to be primarily religious persecution, now the repression is targeting the entire ethnic group. 

Family members have certainly been targeted before, with several mothers of political prisoners detained and fined for standing, holding (formally legal) single-person pickets in defence of their sons.  Since 4 September, however, such persecution has become both more widespread and much more ferocious.  The mass detentions in the evening of 4 September were of Crimean Tatar men and women, some quite elderly, who had gathered outside the Russian FSB in Simferopol to find out the whereabouts of Nariman Dzhelyal and four other men whose arrests bore all the hallmarks of abductions.  Over 50 Crimean Tatars were detained, with most subsequently fined for supposed infringements of Russia’s legislation on peaceful assembly.  Eskender Akhtemov, father of Aziz Akhtemov, who, together with his cousin, Asan Akhtemov, had been seized during the night of 3-4 September, was detained and subsequently jailed for 10 days.  Asan’s brother, Arsen Akhtemov, was also detained and jailed for 15 days. Both were charged on 6 September under Article 19.3 of Russia’s Code of administrative offences with ‘disobeying an enforcement officer’.

There is no doubt that these were ethnically profiled detentions.  In a monitoring report, the Crimean Human Rights Group notes that witnesses for the prosecution referred to those present as having “an Asian”, “eastern”, “Tatar” appearance or as “Tatars”.  Crimean Tatar Enver Aliev was merely passing the gathering that day, yet he was detained, whereas a video of the events shows a man of Slavonic appearance, who was not wearing a mask, and was quite close to those detained.  Neither the OMON nor other police paid any attention to him.  CHRG found that only two people detained that day were not Crimean Tatars – ethnic Ukrainian activist Iryna Kopilova and Vitaly Mekhonoshin,  In the latter case, his thick beard could well have made the police officers think that he was Crimean Tatar.  

Things have only got worse since then, with several mass detentions (on 11 October; 25 October; 29 October and 23 November.  Russia went one frightening step further on 25 October with the detention and charges laid against Crimean Tatar lawyer Edem SemedlyaevHe was later jailed for 12 days for having insisted that the so-called ‘centre for countering extremism’ obey procedural regulations regarding detainees, and then for refusing to strip naked, as demanded by the head of this ‘centre’, Ruslan Renatovich Shambazov

This is open lawlessness and terrorization, with a further escalation on 23 November.  Then 22 Crimean Tatar men, including five journalists, and ten women, were detained merely for coming to greet Semedlyaev on his release from the jail term.  Three women, two of them with small children, were illegally held in detention for almost 24 hours, while all the others detained, who included men and women in their sixties and seventies, were only released very late into the night. 

Nobody had infringed even Russia’s repressive legislation, yet all of the men, including the journalists, were jailed for terms from 10 to 14 days, while all of the women were fined.


Russia has failed to convince the UN’s International Court of Justice [ICJ] that the latter did not have jurisdiction over two claims brought by Ukraine, one over Russia’s violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  It now appears to be concentrating on delaying the Court’s examination of the case for as long as it can while flouting the provisional measures which the Court imposed on it back in April 2017, with these including withdrawing Russia’s extraordinary ban of the Mejlis.  As well as escalating discrimination, especially against Crimean Tatars, it has also used both criminal prosecutions and hate speech in the media to try to discredit the Mejlis.  One of these attempts resulted in the death of 83-year-old Vedzhie Kashka, world-renowned veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement, and the torture through imprisonment of four respected activists, two of whom had very grave medical problems.

Sedova notes that the arrest of Dzhelyal in September has not just led to an increase in mass detentions, but has also prompted “a formidable attack of Russia’s information warriors on all Crimean Tatars.”  Russian media popular in occupied Crimea is seeped in hate speech, with fakes and various forms of manipulation.  All of this is aimed at: intensifying hatred to Crimean Tatars among other ethnic groups; dividing Crimean Tatars into ‘good’ ones, i.e. those loyal to the occupation regime, and ‘the bad’ ones who don’t buckle under; destroying the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people by trying to discredit and demonize not only its members, but also those who regard it as a legitimate body.

Worth noting that all of the criminal cases that Russia has fabricated in its attempts to discredit Crimean Tatar leaders and the Mejlis have been condemned by international bodies and democratic states.  The persecution of Nariman Dzhelyal is no exception.  His arrest came just 10 days after he joined high-ranking representatives of 45 countries at the inaugural meeting of the Crimea Platform.  The alleged act of sabotage that Russia is trying to pin on him even took place while he was at this meeting in Kyiv (details here).  

The examples Sedova cites are either from blatant ‘Russian World’ propaganda media (‘Russkaya Vesna’ or ‘Russian Spring’ and Politnavigator), or from the Kremlin-loyal Komsomolskaya Pravda and Forpost.  These, however, have a huge number of readers, and, in any case, the same types of headlines are found in RIA Novosti, TASS, etc.  All of them posted the supposed videoed ‘confessions’ by Asan and Aziz Akhtemov, made when the men were held incommunicado and prevented from seeing real lawyers.  They are most unlikely to have reported that, when the men were finally, after intervention from the European Court of Human Rights, able to see independent lawyers, both retracted all such ‘confessions’ and described the torture used to extract them.

The propaganda sites refer to those who came out on 4 September to learn the whereabouts of five apparently abducted Crimean Tatars as ‘Mejlis supporters’.   ‘Experts’ are cited in these and other Russian media reports, with the aim, Sedova says, of dividing Crimean Tatars into those who are ‘one of us’, and those who are ‘extremists’, alien, etc.  There is even more toxic hate speech in the commentaries published under such ttexts.

It should be noted that the scale of the hate speech may have changed, not its toxic nature.  It has been used, for example, since Russia first began arresting Crimean Muslims, most of whom are Crimean Tatars, on completely unfounded ‘terrorism’ charges, claiming involvement in a peaceful organization (Hizb ut-Tahrir) which is legal in Ukraine.  Russian state media have used fake video footage in order to present the terrorization of peaceful Crimean Tatar families as ‘fighting terrorism’. There were also attempts to discredit the intentionally respected Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, with claims that he and Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov were

This is not a problem of some gutter press media or other.  Most of the reports cite the Russian FSB, and Sergei Aksyonov, the obscure pro-Russian politician installed by the invading Russian soldiers on 27 February 2014, is also inclined to use the same toxic hate speech.  Moscow’s offensive against Crimean Tatar leaders and the Mejlis began back in 2014.  Now, however, it seems clear that nobody is safe. 

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